Thanks so much to Anne Cater for the blog tour invite, and the publishers Bitter Lemon Press. This novel has been translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts. ‘The Aosawa Murders’ won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for best novel.
On a stormy summer day in the 1970s the Aosawas, owners of a prominent local hospital, host a large birthday party in their villa on the Sea of Japan. The occasion turns into tragedy when 17 people die from cyanide in their drinks. The only surviving links to what might have happened are a cryptic verse that could be the killer’s, and the physician’s bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only family member spared death. The youth who emerges as the prime suspect commits suicide that October, effectively sealing his guilt while consigning his motives to mystery.
Inspector Teru is convinced that Hisako had a role in the crime, as are many in the town, including the author of a bestselling book about the murders written a decade after the incident. The truth is revealed through a skilful juggling of testimony by different voices: family members, witnesses and neighbours, police investigators and of course the mesmerising Hisako herself.
This is a steadily paced read that draws you in by beautifully directed prose and takes you through a journey of questions and puzzles to the final pages. Through the accounts of an author, an assistant, a housekeeper’s daughter, a detective, an elder brother, a young master, a tobacconist’s grandson, an editor, a friend and some other snippets of prose, poetry, diaries and file extracts – we are introduced to a horrific mass murder during an aggressive deluge of rain at a birthday party on the Sea of Japan and its sombre aftermath.
Each narrative voice opens up more information and pulls the reader into the complexities of the event and the psychologies of everyone involved. The delicacies and nuances in the writing are lovely, despite the pain and brutality of the deaths in the umbrella arc of the story.
What I really enjoyed is the distance some of our narrators have from the actual event, for example, the housekeeper’s daughter is recalling events via her mother, who was at the party and one of the only survivors. Another is the young master observing a man who holds his interest and keeps drawing his attention, and who we find is wrapped up in the shocking events. I do enjoy novels that offer varying perspectives on a single event, and this novel is a joy in how the reveals are constructed.
I think this book would suit readers who enjoy unusual mysteries. The final conclusions I found were ambiguous and there are gaps in the story when you read the closing lines, but I feel this book is more about the people affected by the shocking crime; I found more fascination from their viewpoints than in the hunt for the perpetrator. There’s also the bonus of insight into Japanese crime literature and culture that reading this novel brings.
A complex, ambiguous puzzle of a crime novel with a darkness at its core.
The Author – Riku Onda
Riku Onda, born in 1964, is the professional name of Nanae Kumagai. She has been writing fiction since 1991 and has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel for The Aosawa Murders, the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize, and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television. This is her first crime novel and the first time she is translated
Translated by Alison Watts, who is an Australian-born Japanese to English translator and long time resident of Japan. She has translated Aya Goda’s TAO: On the Road and On the Run in Outlaw China (Portobello, 2007) and Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste (Oneworld Publications, 2017), and her translations of The Aosawa Murders and Spark (Pushkin Press, 2020) by Naoki Matayaoshi are forthcoming.
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